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Codependency: What’s It All About?

February 27, 2018

By Tian Dayton, Ph.D.

The word codependency touched a nerve when it first plowed its way into our everyday vernacular. Initially, it grew out of the twelve-step term co-addict, which was a way of describing the spouse of the addict; however, as it didn’t tell the right story, it morphed into co-dependent. It was a kind of grassroots way of naming the situation that a spouse found themselves in when they were connected in every way possible to an addict, married to them, having children with them and living their daily lives or trying to live them together.

Now picture the mid-1980s when people were streaming into conferences and twelve-step rooms or buying books on codependency. They had a somewhat nebulous sense that whatever this word meant, it applied to them. Those of us in the addiction field recognized that people were identifying with the kinds of family dynamics surrounding addiction; the inter-personal fusion, the blurred boundaries, the sense of a loss of personal identity. And from codependency grew the adult children of alcoholics/addicts phenomenon. But, codependency was taken up by people for all kinds of reasons.

Tongue in cheek (sort of), it became difficult to know if codependency applied to addicted families or anyone who grew up in the 1950s. Did all of those pre-packaged ways of living life followed by the kind of social upheaval, the sixties, that made everyone’s heads spin cause some identity disorder? Were all of our parents alcoholics?

Was this vague sense of not having a consolidated sense of self something that everyone felt, or were there reasons it existed that could be understood and worked on?

Understanding Codependency

Codependency is a term that has somewhat lost its original meaning.

It’s come to refer to a broad category like neurotic, to be thought of as a set of behaviors, “I was so codependent last night, sort of thing, or I’m codependent with my daughter.” But using the word as this sort of catch-all descriptor does remove it from its more serious roots. Codependency has become the new neurotic, perhaps referring to how we are within ourselves while codependent, which is how we act within relationships.

So, should we leave the term there and accept that there is so much social identification with it that its meaning has just stretched to encompass all of it? Is it useful for a moment to deconstruct it strip it back to its origin? However, what remains very active here? To clarify, shall we say researched point of view on how it began and how it has evolved?

Types of Codependency

Codependency comes in different forms, including parent-child, partner-partner, spouse-spouse, and coworker-boss — all with varying degrees of severity. Understanding how to spot the signs of codependent behavior is critical to understand when you’re in an unhealthy situation. Here are three types of codependency in relationships.  

Relationships Involving Addiction

When addiction is present in a relationship, it mimics infidelity because it’s the primary source of your loved one’s affection. Even if the other person isn’t aware of the addiction, they feel betrayed once they find out. 

These codependency symptoms can lead to unhealthy lying, promising, threatening, pleading, silence, and other dysfunctional communication patterns. Because of this, you can begin to accommodate the other person’s addiction to maintain some sense of order and avoid conflict. In turn, codependent traits can start to form. 

Relationships Involving Abuse

When abuse is present in a relationship, it creates a power imbalance. Often, the other person will act like the abuse isn’t that bad, and relational patterns that appease the abusive partner develop. When this occurs, there’s increased shame and secrecy within the relationship. This can result in a codependent relationship.

Relationships Involving Validation

Codependent behavior is characterized by a relationship where one partner seeks validation from the other person. Constantly valuing the approval of others can be a result of insecurity and low self-esteem. While the other two forms of codependency result from physical and emotional suffering, this one is rooted in one person’s values and choices.

Taking a Deeper Look

The research on attachment and trauma that has emerged over the last two decades allows us to trace a path for codependency issues that provides a window into its evolution, their parents’ faces, recovery, and mental health fields. From the trauma perspective, I see codependency as a form of hyper-vigilance, based on feeling anxious around the deep, relational connections. In my book Emotional Sobriety in the chapter “Codependency Revisited,” I put it this way,

“When we get scared, our left brain, the language part of the brain, becomes overwhelmed and shuts down…What remains very active, however, is the emotional scanning system in our right brain. The part of our brain that scans and remains hypervigilant is, in fact, working overtime when we are scared — codependency issues in the making. Children who regularly experience relational trauma often learn that they can fend off trouble if they stay hyperfocused on reading the other person’s emotional signals (van der Kolk, 1997). They can become very adept at reading other people’s moods, often excluding their own. They become more in touch with what those around them are feeling than what they are feeling. They become habitually outer-focused and may lose touch with what is going on inside of them.

But here’s the key in terms of developing a sense of self: The very fact that when frightened, we lose access to our thinking function, where we make sense of what’s happening, think through and integrate our emotions, and consolidate our sense of self-in-relation-to others, is why being in a chronic state of fear interferes with our ability to develop a sense of self.

Codependents spend a lot of time managing the world around them so that they can feel less anxious.” But at the expense of learning to manage themselves and the ins and outs of their own inner world.

The Family Connection

From the attachment point of view, babies come into this world needing to literally fasten themselves onto their caregivers, not only because it feels good or calms them or makes them happy, which of course it does, but because they need to survive. They’re like turtles on their backs, limbs flailing. If they cry out and no one comes, they experience it as life-threatening, they are alone in the world, and no one can hear their wail. That’s the very beginning.

Codependency in its deepest sense can begin very, very early. It’s fear-based, a terror that our overpowering need to attach to our primary caregivers, will not necessarily be met with an equally powerful urge to connect with us. And this creates deep anxiety. Babies look into the faces of their parents to see if they are OK. OK with the world (because their parent is their world), OK with themselves (because what their parents think and feel toward them is what they think and feel about themselves), and OK with life (because their parents are the gatekeepers of life and all it holds). When this child looks into their parent’s face for reassurance and love, they find rejection and disinterest. The child will feel disheartened to their very core.

And here it all begins.

This disheartened child may set about a lifelong repetitive pattern designed, at its roots, to turn their parent’s sour face into a happy one. They will craft their behavior to get that face to smile back at them, gaze at them with affection, and register approval. Their attention will become outwardly focused. Their first thought will be to study someone else’s face so that they can alter their behavior to minimize rejection and maximize acceptance. They will, by extension, learn to scan other people and situations for signs of acceptance or rejection, and they will adjust their inner compass to fit in.

And that’s codependency.

It’s a perversion of a natural desire to adapt our behavior to fit into the group. We are pack animals, and we naturally want to vibrate in tune with those around us. But when those around us cannot attune themselves to us, when they cannot be pleased or when our primary caregiver’s mood rules the environment, what’s a kid to do?

Healing From Codependency

Seeing codependency as a set of behaviors means that we think that changing our behaviors is the solution to becoming less codependent.

There’s one more problem that I see a lot in recovery and therapy: we over-correct. Once we decide we’re codependent (or worse, once a therapist tells us we are), we think that pulling away from the natural and caring behaviors that accompany connection and intimacy and constructing a slalom course of boundaries that virtually no one can jump is the solution. But it’s not. This is not an intellectual fix. Its origins are deep, and its healing needs to be deep. No one in our fast-paced world really wants to say that. However, the slow way is a quick way. If we start a true healing process, each day becomes a quiet celebration, not only because we feel the cumulative nature of our healing, but we’re not wasting time just repeating what isn’t working.

Although behavior changes are always a part of change and recovery, it may be useful to reexamine the roots of emotional codependency in light of neurological findings. It might be healing to examine the parenting styles that we grew up with to understand how we got the way we got, we were scared all the time, and that fear triggered us to please others instead of tuning in on ourselves? Everyone does this to some extent and needs to swim with the shoal; it is when we tune into others at the exclusion of tuning into ourselves that it can cause a problem.

Healing from codependency is a gradual rebuilding of our sense of self within the context of relationships that creates long-lasting healing. It knows that pathologizing other people is not the answer, nor is pathologizing ourselves. It’s healing that yearning child a day at a time, crying the tears, giving shape and voice to the rage at feeling hurt and forgiving ourselves and others for being human too. It’s also daily learning to let caring and goodness into all those secret places that need it and be grateful for our wonderful life. This life allows us to examine these issues that are far beyond survival of the body and more a survival of the spirit.


Dayton, Tian, 2007, Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance, Deerfield Beach, Health Communications, HCI.

van der Kolk, B. A. 1987. Psychological Trauma. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.